The Little Red Hen Got it All Wrong: It’s about Experiencing the Mitzvah

by Cheryl Kollin

given at Adat Shalom Shabbat Service, May 19, 2012

The Little Red Hen got it all wrong. Do you remember this classic children’s story? The Little Red Hen wanted to eat some bread. But first she needed to grow the grain. She asked her townsfolk, “Who will help me plant some wheat”? No one offered. So, she did it herself. “Who will help me tend the wheat?” No one offered. “Who will help me harvest the wheat? Who will help me grind the wheat? Bake the bread?” Each time she asked, no one offered to help, so she did it all by herself. Finally, when she asked, “Who will help me eat the bread?” Everyone came to help! But she decided that since she did all the work, she alone should enjoy the bread. And so she did.  While the Little Red Hen may have invoked a guilt trip on the townsfolk with consequences, I have to say, she didn’t inspire them to action.

I thought about this story when reading this week’s Parsha about being rewarded for obeying God’s commandments. From Leviticus, Ch. 29 v3-4: “If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, I will grant you rains in their season, so that the earth shall yield its produce and the trees of the field their fruit…you shall eat your fill of bread and dwell securely in your land.”   And the Parsha goes on in great detail listing all of the terrible things that will happen if you don’t follow God’s commandments.

In her book, the Path of Blessing, Rabbi Marsha Prager explains that most non-Orthodox Jews have abandoned the obligatory path of commandments, or, ‘Mitzvot’.  At worst, Mitzvot connotes a list of repressive restrictions and obligations; at best Mitzvot is translated as ‘good deeds’. Rabbi Prager offers a more potent meaning of the word. She translates Mitzvot as our wake-up call to action. She writes, “our act of Mitzvot organizes our energy in God-directed ways and expands and enhances our own connection to God. Through the practice of Mitzvot, the divine light shines within each moment. Our task through everyday actions is to make that light manifest”.

So I ask us to consider, how do we reframe doing, ‘what we should do’, into what gives us joy and then motivates us to take sacred action in our everyday lives? Instead of Ms. Hen’s implicit directives—‘you should help with these tasks because it will feed our community’,  I believe that she would have gotten better results if she had invited the townsfolk to experience the joy of planting, the joy of baking, and the joy of working together in community.

Adat Shalom’s Mishnah garden, first established three years ago, provides fresh food for those who must rely on food banks to stretch their monthly food budgets. In our first two growing seasons, we’ve planted, harvested, and donated 303 lbs. of food in our little 800 sq. foot garden. While our contribution is quite small compared to the need—that unfortunately has doubled in the last 4 years, to serving 173,000 people annually, the staff at Manna tell us that we are one of the few area congregations that grow and donate fresh food. Fresh food is more nutritious and very welcome by families who receive mostly canned and highly-processed food. No doubt that our contribution toward alleviating hunger is truly a mitzvah.

But I wanted to delve deeper into this mitzvah. I wanted to know what the experience of working in the Mishnah Garden means to members of our congregation. So I asked, and, of the many responses I got, I share these three powerful insights:

Elise Caplan wrote, “Working in the garden for me is similar to one important aspect of Shabbat Services—to take a break from the insanity of e-mail or running to the mall. I’m reminded of the spiritual and fundamental beauty of community and nature, without electronics or money!”

Fran Zamore wrote, “All year I have been impressed and inspired seeing children, teens, and adults working in the garden. I’ve felt as though I’ve been missing out on something special. I was hesitant to get involved because I have no gardening background. I felt welcomed today and I learned how to plant garlic.”

Jackie Glass wrote, “What the Mishnah Garden means to me is peace.  Since my mother was diagnosed with cancer, working in the garden, in the sunlight and surrounded by quiet, has given me a safe and peaceful place to be.  I know I am helping others, but by doing this task, I am helping myself”.

For me, as a life-long home gardener, I was surprised that gardening with our community touched me in new ways. First, I witnessed the wonder of then two year-old, Gilee Scherlinder picking his first tomato. I captured his astonished expression in a photo, cupping this huge red orb in his hands.

Gilad Scherlinder’s first tomato

Second, I’m reminded that our Mishnah Garden is but one link in our region’s complex local food system—one whose needs are great and opportunities to do mitzvot are many. But instead of listing all the reasons of why you and I should get involved, I’ll suggest four ways to deepen your experience with food, and through your experience, perhaps deepen your connection with God.

Start with whatever you practice now…

  • If you’ve never tasted a fresh-from-the-garden vegetable, try a taste at an Oneg. Look for the ‘Adat’s Own Grown’ signs on the Oneg table—and come early before it is all gone.
  • If you already know the superior taste of eating fresh produce—try starting a small garden at home, or better yet, join our Mishnah Garden chug to garden with others in our community. Our Shabbat guidelines engage us intentionally in, “other-than-work-week” activities such as planting seeds, harvesting, and light weeding, saving the real labor on other days.
  • If you eat locally-grown produce, experience the joy of picking a sun-ripened tomato or digging up potatoes like buried treasure. Become a Harvest Host one Shabbat and pick vegetables for our Oneg table and for donation to Manna. Talk with Jackie Glass and Elise Caplan, who make our garden donation possible. No experience necessary; we will teach you what to pick.

Harvesting for Manna is an “Other-than-work-week” activity

  • If you’re already a gardener and wonder what to do with all your extra zucchini and tomatoes, join me in a new Farm to Freezer program. Learn how to preserve the bounty of farmer’s market produce that’s donated to Bethesda Cares, a non-profit that will turn this preserved food into hot lunches for the homeless. Ask me or our intern, college student, Josh Sennett about volunteering.

It’s too late for the Little Red Hen; she alienated those who would have enjoyed the fruits of their labor while working in community. I invite you to experience the joy of growing and eating food in these four new ways.

1.)   TASTE-the incredible flavor of garden-picked vegetables.

2.)   PLANT a seed—join us in the Mishnah Garden.

3.)   PICK vine-ripe veggies, become a Harvest Host one Shabbat

4.)   PRESERVE the harvest bounty—volunteer at Bethesda Cares’ Farm to Freezer program.

And if you find that spark of divine presence in these experiential ways, your intention may change, and your Mitzvot will surely follow.

Shabbat Shalom.


2 Responses to “The Little Red Hen Got it All Wrong: It’s about Experiencing the Mitzvah”

  1. Shandie & Bernie May 23, 2012 at 7:32 pm #

    This was great. You do “good works.”

  2. Gloria Bookstein June 5, 2012 at 3:36 pm #

    That was a lovely article. Very inspiring, too.

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